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Listen to the 'cues

Regional BBQ is crossing state lines.

Fans used to have to travel to the backwaters of the South for authentic barbecue. The barbecue belt has now expanded many notches, with regional specials showing up on chain menus and urban outposts with in-house smokers. Certain fast-casual players have been particularly active in spreading regional barbecue nationwide, taking pains to preserve its authenticity.

City Barbeque is based in Dublin, Ohio, but “we prepare meat like they do in the great barbecue regions,” says Rick Malir, president of the 23-unit fast casual. “We cook in smokers at every location and make all our own sauces and rubs,” he says. “We don’t want to buy these off a distributor’s truck and get the same product as our competitors.” Patrons can douse their meat with mustard, vinegar or classic red BBQ sauce, each representing a different regional style.

Recipes are standardized to assure consistency across all locations, which now extend from Ohio to Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina. A pit boss and manager at each unit have been trained to work the smokers and rub the meats, turning out  hickory-smoked brisket, pork and ribs. The average check is $12.

When Brad Orrison founded The Shed in 2000 in Ocean Springs, Miss., he upgraded Southern barbecue by sourcing all-natural beef and pork, making his own non-GMO and gluten-free sauces and serving the food on metal trays instead of paper plates to reduce the carbon footprint. The average check is $22, but that doesn’t hurt traffic—The Shed serves 8,000 customers a week at its two locations.

To feed the crowds, Orrison loads up his smokers with $5,000 to $8,000 worth of meat at one time and stokes the fire with pecan wood. “There’s a derivative of vanilla in the wood that flavors the meat with sweet smoke,” he says. “For less shrinkage and better yield, we spec well-marbled meat and closely monitor the smokers 24-7 to prevent overcooking.” The Shed offers four sauces—sweet, spicy, mustard and vinegar—that Orrison developed and now bottles for retail.

Craftsmanship is something that authentic barbecue places take seriously, even when a concept is the fastest-growing large chain in the country. Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit numbers 417 locations in 42 states, but every unit operator is sent to BBQ University for three weeks of training, says Jeff Forrester, vice president of purchasing. They become highly skilled (a selling point for diehards) in using the offset rotary smoker. Texas-style hickory-smoked brisket is Dickey’s signature, with 12 to 14 million pounds a year going through the system, but pulled pork, St. Louis ribs, turkey, chicken, ham and sausages join beef on the menu.

What also sets Dickey’s apart are its rubs and sauces, all family recipes. Forrester revealed that the rubs contain salt, black pepper, chili powder and paprika, but the sauces are top secret. “Two supplier partners make  the sauces—one uses one set of ingredients, the other, a second set,” he says. “Then the components come together at a third plant.” 

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